Heidegger and Nazism

Apologies for Heidegger’s Nazism take a few different forms. As I mentioned yesterday, some apologists, call them the Orthodox Apologists, try to show that Heidegger himself simply forgot the lessons of his own early work, or retreated into errancy. At worst, his later Nazi pronouncements betrayed that early work by appropriating fundamental ontology for a political project to which it is actively hostile. Orthodox Apologists must still explain the parts of Division II that dwell on the existential analysis of the people, the ‘volk,’ but it’s a relatively small section of ambiguously-worded text that needs to be explained.  Emmanuel Faye’s new book, The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy, doesn’t really rule out this interpretation, but what it does do is to weaken the case for other kinds of apology.

Other apologists, for instance, defend Heidegger’s actual actions during the rector period and even his near-silence after the war except to compare the death camps to factory farming (which seems to tarnishes his thinking about technology and the anti-humanist project.) Of these, I think of some as Machiavellian Apologists, and some as Straussian Apologists. The Machiavellians make the most sense to me: it’s somewhat tempting to say that in 1933 and 1934, the shape and course of the movement was not yet completely fixed. The movement itself seemed to be national unrest in search of an ideology, and the Nazis were fantastic at taking a little bit of everything: the genius of their propaganda was the way it seamlessly melded faux-paganism with a German version of Manifest Destiny with a return to Nature with support for the military-industrial complex with xenophobia with three different and incompatible conspiracy theories. Heidegger saw a piece of that propaganda formation in media res and might have thought he could hop on the bandwagon and quickly end up driving.

It’s not as if Heidegger himself participated in the Final Solution, nor does he seem to have had any personal antipathy towards Jews, though he did assist in the purging of Jewish scholars, and famously removed his own teacher’s name (Edmund Husserl!) from the dedication of Being and Time. National Socialism was unprecedented. When Heidegger took up the rectorship, he could not yet have realized what National Socialism would become, and indeed his own comments at the time and afterward suggest that he hoped to take this nascent movement and transform it into something that could shake off the degeneration of modernity, but, you know, not in a genocidal way.

I imagine this as a kind of hubris, but one that is fairly typical of academics. We’d all like to be the power behind the throne, to put a bug in the President’s ear and have him appoint us to some position where we can have our ideas about justice (or critical thinking, or theism, or the environment) disseminated widely. But in the early 30s, it appeared to be one of those peasant/monarch factions that occasionally erupts, where someone claims to speak for the whole population and they buy into his charisma or demagoguery. Perhaps Heidegger really thought that he could bring the leaders of National Socialism into line, give these bright-eyed ingénues the benefit of his wisdom, and end up in charge. That is Heidegger’s version of events:

The rectorate was an attempt to see something in the movement that had come to power, beyond all its failings and crudeness, that was much more far-reaching and that could perhaps one day bring a concentration on the Germans’ Western historical essence. It will in no way be denied that at the time I believed in such possibilities and for that reason renounced the actual vocation of thinking in favor of being effective in an official capacity. In no way will what was caused by my own inadequacy in office be played down. But these points of view do not capture what is essential and what moved me to accept the rectorate.

I think every philosopher can squint and see themselves in this portrait. Indeed, I think that’s why Heidegger chose this self-description, and phrased it in the passive voice: “No agents here! No bad guys. You would have done the same thing!”

You hear a speech on the radio quoting Nietzsche and the pedant in you thinks: “That’s great that you’re interested in one of Germany’s great philosophers! He’s under-appreciated, and it’s good to see young people getting excited by ideas. But you’ve got it all wrong: here, let me show you. He didn’t hate Jews: in fact, he couldn’t stomach antisemitism, all overcome with resentment. Judaism may have saddled men with a conscience, but it was Christianity that really took guilt and sin to this self-flagellating degree. The Greeks: now there’s an ethos for you… look at what the Stranger says here in The Sophist….” After Faye’s book, which demonstrates the way in which Heidegger’s lectures became infected with race-thinking and biologistic accounts of the people’s racial purity, I think that this narrative will no longer  be plausible.

Of course in reality, as Arendt notes in Origins of Totalitarianism, National Socialism was unprecedented in a different sense. All the parts of the Shoah had been seen before, but the  components had never been assembled in the way that the Nazis assembled them: antisemitism and pogroms, massive administration of everyday life during wartime, state population classification based on race for ‘health’ reasons, national ideological myths designed to usurp the role of religion in people’s lives, and even the attempted destruction of a people, in the Armenian genocide.

The Straussian version of this narrative (and I’m not attributing this view to all actual Straussians, though I tend to hear it from my most Straussian friends) focuses on his rectorship specifically: perhaps he was engaging in hamfisted political maneuvering, but he did in the name of academic freedom, trying to preserve a sheltered space in the university where the storms of politics wouldn’t touch. Indeed, his most famous Nazi statements, the Rector’s Address, which seems designed to signal a vanguard role for the university in which the political movement would find itself falling in step with the project of thinking the difference between Being and beings that the university (and Heidegger) would lead, can also be interpreted as a call for traditional academic freedom. Under the guise of throwing them a few bones (or in this case, purging a few Jews ), such apologists seem to think he hoped to save the German academy itself. Well, maybe. But that depends on him having acted cynically, publicly espousing Nazism but privately disbelieving it. In his work on the unpublished and unredacted seminars of that period, Faye has completely demolished this kind of apology, showing how the race-thinking of the Nazis had to be redacted out of even his private notes.

Last night, I sat down at Barnes and Noble to skim through the Faye book, and decided to type out some quotes to help those who aren’t able to pony up $40 for the hardback. What I came up with will be pretty difficult to explain away, and this is only the result of an hour’s skimming. While I continue to think that there is value in Heidegger’s project, I am increasingly persuaded that we must really confront the National Socialist influence before we can safely extract that value.

August 1933) Address to the Freiburg Institute of Pathological Anatomy

This was an address to a medical college. Heidegger at this point appears to be trying to gather all the factions of the university up through inspirational speeches. In the process, he gives quite a lot of positive attention and support to the weird Aryan biologistic ideology. Here, under the guise of describing the Greek notion of health, he throws a Platonic pre-forgetting-of-the-question-of-Being shout-out to a fairly instrumental notion of life:

“For the Greeks, for example, ‘healthy’ means neither more nor less than being ready and strong to act in the service of the state. For one who would no longer satisfied the condition of such action, the physician was no longer authorized to come, even in the case of ‘illness.’” (Faye, 68)

And then he goes on to explain what that means:

“Adolf Hitler, our great Furher and chancellor, created through the National Socialist revolution, a new state by which the people will assure itself anew of the duration and continuity of history… For every people , the first warranty of its authenticity and greatness is in its blood, its soil, and its physical growth. If it loses the good or even only allows it to become considerably weakened, all effort at state politics, all economic and technical ability, all spiritual action will remain in the end null and void.” (Faye, 68)

But again, this is a public speech. Perhaps Heidegger didn’t really mean it. Perhaps this was part of the deep game he was playing?

Logic as the Question of the Essence of Language (Summer 1934)

The problem with the Straussian view is that this infected his lectures as well. In the summer seminar of 1934, Heidegger gave this course. In a trajectory that is familiar to any Heideggerian, he begins with the quesstion “What is the essence of language?” which leads him to “what is man?” which leads to “who are we ourselves?”

“Heidegger answers, “We are the people” … “Our being-ourselves is the people.” The author [Heidegger] unreservedly and uncritically brings up the action of the “volkisch movement,” which, he says, “desires to restore the people to its racial purity.” (Faye, 99)

Here we have the problem. It’s always been tempting to read the passages on language as the house of Being non-nationalistically. But here we have Heidegger himself saying otherwise. Man dwells in the house of Being that is language, and comes to know himself as a a member of the people, who must be restored to purity, not linguistically or poetically, but racially! Ah, you say, but perhaps Heidegger has something different in mind about race than non-commingled bloodlines? Nope:

“In the census-taking of the people, only those who live within the borders of the state are counted: the Germans living outside the country… are therefore not counted in the population census. In this sense, they are not part of the people. But, he adds: “On the other hand, among those included in the count there may be those who, considered in a volkisch way, are radically foreign, are not part of the people.” (Faye, 101)

He goes on to explain still further:

“What we call ‘race’ [Rasse] has a relationship with what binds the members of a people to one another–according to their origin–by body and by blood.” (Faye, 101)

So I think, in that moment in 1934, just as he was in the process of losing the rectorship, Heidegger had completely bought into the ideology of racial purity. All the lectures of that period, not the least his lectures on Nietzsche, must be scoured for other signs of this racilialized nationalism if they are to be taken seriously again.

On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History, and State (Winter 1933-34)

This is Faye’s secret weapon. An unpublished lecutre series on politics and Hitlerism. In it, Heidegger makes clear that you can only really understand the project of fundamental ontology if you’re a German who has bought into the ideology of National Socialism and especially of the Fuhrer. He describes here a role of philosophers and the university that will extend and preserve the National Socialist cause, in all its racist glory. I’ll just give you some quotes:

Heidegger begins with: “to be man means: to bear within oneself the possibility and necessity of fashioning and accomplishing both one’s own being within a community, and that of a community.” This is a gloss on the Aristotelian “zoon politikon.” (Faye, 116)

You know, that doesn’t sound so bad…. Glossing the polis as a community sounds kind of right to me, actually. But that’s not what Heidegger has in mind:

But from this he turns to “the urgent task of our era [which is] the confrontation of this danger [of the downfall of the state] by attempting to restore politics to its rightful rank, to teach us to see it once again as the fundamental character of the philosophizing man in history, and as that being in which the state develops, so that it can truly be called the mode of being of a people.” (Faye, 117)

No community without the instantiation of a state. Preserve the state of the community dies. Sounds like Hobbes, if Hobbes were an asshole. Then he goes on to explain how the state’s head tyrant relates to the fundamental themes of resoluteness in Being and Time. The bumpy brackets are my own summaries.

“Heidegger proceeds to a radical ontologization of the state. He speaks of the “original relation of essence between the people and state.” It is the knowledge of these concepts that necessitates “political education,” defined as their “introduction into our political being proper.” {This introduction reveals to us the necessity of a Furher.} He continues as follows: “That does not mean, however, that just anybody who gets this knowledge can act politically and be authorized to do so as a statesman or Fuhrer. For the origin of all political action and Furhung is not in knowledge, but in being. Every Furher is a Fuhrer, must be a Fuhrer, in accordance with the stamp of his being, and simultaneously, in the living unfolding of his proper essence, he understands, thinks, and puts into action what the people and the state are.” (Faye, 120-1)

Still, there’s hope here. in his interest in political education, you can hear a whisper of Heidegger’s ambition and hope to be the power behind the thrown throne… until he dashes his own hopes:

“A Fuhrer does not need to be educated politically, but a troop of guardians within the people, who contribute to bearing the responsibility of the state, must be. For every state and all knowledge of a state grows within a political tradition. Where this nourishing, securing soil is lacking, the best ideas of a state cannot take root and grow forth and develop out of the sustaining bosom of the people. Otto the Great founded his empire [Reich] on the spiritual princes, requiring of them political and military allegiance and knowledge. And Frederick the Great educated the Prussian nobility to be guardians of his state. Bismarck neglected this enrootedness of his idea of the state in the solid and powerful soil of the political nobility, and when his protective arm loosed its grip, the second empire collapsed unsupported. Today we must not neglect the foundation of a political tradition and education of a political nobility.” (Faye, 122)

Heidegger here seems to be setting himself up as court philosopher: a member of the few, not the solitary one.

“the people, that is, beings, bear a very precise relation to their {B}eing, that is, to the state.” (Faye, 131)

This was about all I could stomach. The final two chapters offer close readings of the uncorrected proofs of two texts: “Hegel, On the State,” and the famous “Contributions to Philosophy,” which had a whole section devoted to race and community under the heading “Koinon,” which includes the following passage:

This is as close as we come to a real attempt to undermine the racialism of the selection process. Apparently, killing Jews is bad metaphysics:

“The metaphysical foundation of racial thought is not biologism, but the subjectivity (to be thought metaphysically) of being of entities (the consequence of the overcoming of the essence of metaphysics, and especially of the modern era). (Thought of all the refutations of biologism too crude: therefore useless.)” (Faye, 285)

As Arendt points out in her book on Eichmann, much of the Nazi propaganda was self-directed. It depended on jargonizing ordinary acts so that they could no longer be exposed to common sense reasoning. There’s more than a little of this in Heidegger as well, and whenever someone demands that you can only properly understand someone if you adopt their way of speaking about it, I worry. Himmler’s ‘winged words’ and Heidegger’s efforts to “show that all previous questions and investigations which aim at Da-sein fail to see the real philosophical problem,” have the same provenance: if I can control the way you speak about this issue, you will find that my conclusions are suddenly much more persuasive. For Eichmann, this meant that, in Arendt’s words, he rarely knew what he was doing. What did it mean for Heidegger?

Much of Faye’s work on the later Heidegger seems an effort to catch him out, to read things in the worst possible light. He frequently compares snippets of Heidegger to long passages of Carl Schmitt, and I’m not sure if we’re supposed to understand that Heidegger agreed with Schmitt or that Schmitt was borrowing from Heidegger. (One of Faye’s least well-justified claims is that Heidegger may have ghost-written some of Hitler’s speeches of that period.) I grew tired of Faye’s repetitions and efforts to link every little moment to the earlier lectures, though later in the book I was only skimming at Barnes and Noble, looking for more smoking guns. What I found looked a lot more like enraged conjecture.

For instance, Faye’s interpretation of the Hitlerian triad “poet, thinker, political action” to correspond to the solitary/few/many triad in the Beitrage, and thus to tar Heidegger with Hitler’s formulation strikes me as a reach, since neither of them can really take credit for the basic distinction between “one, some, and all” or its political formulation “monarchy, oligarchy, democracy.” I don’t think that esoteric  exegesis is necessary, or at least not initially. Likely, we’ll be chewing on this book and the previously unknown original material that it reveals for a long time to come, and some better and more even-handed accounts will emerge of the relationship between the Nazi and the thinker in the post-war period. Not every similarity can we attributed to collusion or subservience: there has to be room for some coincidence or mutual picking up of the Zeitgeist. Faye’s work on the overtly Nazi seminars of 1933-1935 is more than sufficient.

Just a personal note. No one knew better than Heidegger the philologist the value of language, the house of Being, but some phrases have little communicative content. They offer little in analytic terms. They serve only to draw lines in the sand, to articulate solidarities and enmities, in-groups and out-groups. This is why he constantly suppressed Latin-derived expressions, especially for metaphysical terms, in favor of Greek/Germanic ones. He wanted to purify the language and uncover the forgetting of Being, and he wanted to work with those who could share in this task by letting themselves be drawn by the same calling. Though this was a useful insight, I think we can agree that it may have taken a wrong turn somewhere when language and people and race and state became different words for the same thing. There are other ways that we make our sympathies known, other ways to remember and forget fundamental questions. Here’s a nice example, possibly from the German ficken, possibly from the Greek pephyka (πεφυκα), though we cannot completely rule out the Latin etymology in fūtuere or facere:

Fuck you, Martin.






6 responses to “Heidegger and Nazism”

  1. enowning Avatar

    Thanks for going to B&N and reporting back on Faye's book. I'm finding all kinds of inconsistencies between Faye and the canonical reading of the same texts. I'll try to look some things up this evening and comment.

    Right away I notice that this bit,

    "On the Essence and Concepts of Nature, History, and State (Winter 1933-34)

    This is Faye’s secret weapon. An unpublished lecutre series on politics and Hitlerism."

    I've never heard of this title. WS 33/34 is published as Vom Wesen der Wahrheit (WS 1933/34) in GA 36/37. I assume they are the same lecture course, and that Faye doesn't haven't access to a secret lecture series other scholars don't know about. I haven't read it – translation in preparation – but I've heard it is the most problematic for Heidegger and Nazism apologists. However, most other scholars have a different interpretation from Faye.

  2. Joshua Avatar

    I'd have to go back and look again, but in the case of the "Nature, History, and State" seminar, apparently it -was- a secret, or at least unpublished, with no critical edition. I'm not sure if it's the same one you're referring to or not… did Heidegger give more than one lecture/seminar course at a time?

  3. enowning Avatar

    Heidegger usually did one lecture course, and one or two seminars, per semester. The lecture courses are usually well documented – Heidegger would normally write them out. Almost all of them are now published. The seminars are more of a mixed bag. Several have been published, but they're usually based on a mix of students and Heideger's notes. I dug up a paper of Faye's from South Central Review (Spring 2006) and he says its a seminar. He also mentions another contemporary seminar on Hegel. I don't see either in the works published so far. Does Faye include them in his book, or just his own excerpts? I know from investigating Faye's excerpt from another seminar that it reads differently when read in context.

    I found some stuff from these seminars in Zizek's In Defense of Lost Causes; his source is Faye's book. They're interesting because it's rare for Heidegger to say anything about politics, and here he goes into Hegel's ideas of the leadership of the state. It sounds like the Heidegger that Leo Strauss critizes. Normally, I don't care for Heidegger's politics, but I'm curious about this "radical ontologization of the state", and how Heidegger makes the jump from fundamental ontology to something as practical as how to run a government. I'll probably pick up Faye's book when its remaindered. I've bought the other H & politics books that way a couple years after they were released. There's always a big splash when they come out, but they never sell very well, because few people actually care to read Heidegger's political insights.

    BTW, Heidegger can be quite nastily anti-semitic in some of his personal communications, even though that didn't prevent him from having life long personal relations with some Jews. One research topic someone should do is: when exactly did Heidegger adopt his stance against biological racism? That would closely tie in with his statements on blood and race, which don't appear to have the meaning they have today in our age of genetic engineering, and instead seem to refer to ethnic cultures.

    Also, the notion that there's something ontologically special about the German people pops up through out Heidegger's works. This is probably one reason non-German readers (and I suspect most Germans too) don't buy into everything Heidegger wrote.

    My German being atrocious, I hope some graduate students somewhere will grace us with translations of these seminars. However, after immersion in Contributions to Philosophy and Mindfulness, I'm hoping Die Geschichte des Seyns (1938-40) and Das Ereignis (1941/42) are translated before Alzheimer's or Dementia bring my readings of ontology to an end.

  4. Brunson Avatar


    "But should readers beware? Will an afternoon with Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics or the work of one of Heidegger’s acolytes – Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, for instance – really see readers washed away, unawares, by the undercurrents of Nazi thinking? It doesn’t really seem very likely, and that’s not just because there’s very little actual Fuhrer-loving, Semite-hating stuff to be read in these works. It’s due to the fact that readers are not empty receptacles into which ideas, good, bad and ugly, are just pumped. People interpret, engage, and – yes – think about what they are reading. To worry that philosophical works, and works as prolix as Heidegger’s, works that demand efforts of interpretation, might accidentally turn readers into Nazis is as patronising and absurd as the early-1990s concern that kids, listening to Judas Priest records, were being turned into the children of Beelzebub."

  5. kalypso Avatar

    How you frame the question already and always frames the answer, whether the answer is something tragic or something to be celebrated. The fact that we cannot reconcile both the tragic and celebratory simultaneously in a way of thinking and communication in our current situation [bipartisan politics, "terrorism", separation of church and state], further makes 'permanent' the concept of absolute, state, good, rather than moving beyond these [false] "problems" in both our thinking and language. Writing about the relation between Heidegger and Nazism, in this way, places the writer in the same [insert dichotomy here] "subject-object" situation of power that he intends to criticize.

    By the way, "pephyka" and "fikken" in addition to all the other derivatives in Latin, Dutch, Spanish, Romanian, Italian and English, come from the Indo-European root b(h)u – and b(h)ug – or "be" and "becoming".

    The deed is everything, the interpretation, the act, the joining, the decisive situation. The decisive calling for/beckoning to the questionability brings us both nearer to and further from the situation of the question.

    Naming that decision [intention] as race, politics, religion, erects the situation as actual, but it is necessary to simultaneously consider and reflect on the fact that we are able to think about the situation in a multitude of ways. Why is it that we "fight" for the rights of [abortion, gay marriage] with an allegiance to one side of the dichotomy; right/wrong, healthy/unhealthy, real/fake, normal/taboo? Why can we not celebrate the tragedy that is communicability; that we can think in more than one way?

    questionability and interpretation: Dissemination (Derridas), Dialogue and Dialectic (Gadamer), Means WIthout End (Agamben)

  6. […] structure of our spatial and temporal being. There’s lots to hate about Heidegger (seriously, fuck you Martin) but I think he gets this right: meaning in life is just the way that events of value and […]

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